The Rear-View Mirror: Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Ah yes, modernist literature. It’s suspicious, isn’t it? No other literary epoch is so well-known by its titles and authors, and yet so un-read. Go to your bookshelves. Find Ulysses. It might just be the most bought and least read book of all times. Go to the chapter that’s set in the maternity ward. See? Have you read it? Have you? Almost no-one has, at least not the one in the novel. And if you want to read it right now, chances are you will need linguistic help. Just as with the whole of Finnegans Wake. Here, just gave you the whole novel. Something tells me you have more time than usual on your hands, but you probably won’t read it.

You are more likely to want to tackle postmodern stuff like Don DeLillo’s Underworld because it is more about your – our – time than all that First World War stuff, isn’t it? Because who fought who in that disaster? It makes for good films, but literature? With that modernist lilt? Fear not, for Virginia Woolf, while not an easy read, is not some experimental monstrosity, but a moderately paced novel that jumps around in time and space, but relates, essentially, the story of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class lady, maybe married to the wrong man, giving a party that same evening, and Septimus Warren Smith, a WWI veteran with severe PTSD who is in danger to commit suicide. There is a lot of stream of consciousness in the text, a sane internal monologue in Mrs Dalloway’s case, and severe hallucinations in Smith’s case. It’s certainly not the easiest text, but it is miles away from the intentional difficulty of a James Joyce novel.

It’s the trick of using stream of consciousness that lets the text jump back and forth in time. Dickens wouldn’t have dreamt of such a thing, and Victor Hugo went back in time to explain one character’s actions when crossing paths with another character. Mrs Dalloway thinks about organizing a party, running errands, and so thinks of people from her distant and immediate past, who will or will not turn up that same evening. Strictly speaking, the novel takes place on one and the same day, like Ulysses, but again, it’s the stream of consciousness that permits the introduction of past events and faraway places. I like Woolf’s novels, but Mrs Dalloway might be a good starting point to get acquainted with her work. I find To the Lighthouse and The Waves more difficult, but that might differ from reader to reader. I am the one who has read Underworld, The Man Without Qualities, and Les Misérables, and found a lot to like in all of them. I have also read Ulysses, yes, except for that chapter.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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